Published 2018-04-10

This post is also available in Swedish

Industrial refuse the key to circular waste management

Waste researcher Nils Johansson has started his Mistra Fellowship at the German environment institute Oeko. He will interview various participants about why other European countries have such different attitudes towards industrial waste.
‘In Europe, there’s a political climate in which innovation for circularity is more likely to be undertaken than in Sweden,’ he says.

‘In Sweden, we’re good at household waste,’ Johansson explains when we meet in Berlin. ‘But household waste accounts for less than 5% of the total waste mountain. The bulk comes from industry, and Sweden lags behind.

‘When the aim is to create circles, industrial rather than household waste is important, and there’s a big difference in approach between Sweden and Central Europe,’ Johansson says.

The Oeko Institute’s research premises in east central Berlin are adjacent to the Jannowitz Bridge, with its thundering underground train traffic and a background of hideous plattenbau (‘slab house’) blocks from the German Democratic Republic (GDR or East Germany) era. Here and there is an occasional old house that survived the bombs in 1945. It is a fairly typical Berlin street environment.

Johansson has recently begun his Mistra Fellowship here and describes himself as a ‘waste scientist’.

In Sweden, we focus most on the environmental toxins found in industrial waste. On the Continent, there are greater attempts to extract the resources it contains, and make more use of industrial waste. Sludge is spread on the fields, slag goes to cement production and ash is laid under the roads.

‘Of course, they’re aware of the risks of pharmaceutical residues and heavy metals here too. But they think in a different, more flexible way,’ Johansson says.

If the plan is to place the material under preschool buildings, stricter requirements are imposed. In other contexts, the regulations may be applied less rigorously.

‘There’s also a political climate where innovation to create circularity is more likely to take place than in Sweden,’ Johansson says.

In Germany, for example, a new law states that phosphorus in sludge must be extracted separately and sprinkled on the fields. One of the reasons is the wish to avoid pharmaceutical residues and other unwanted substances. Another reason is that the Germans do not want to be dependent on phosphorus imports from unstable regions such as Western Sahara.

‘The technology isn’t ready, but they’ve still made a political decision to push development,’ Johansson says as we walk along the corridors to find a vacant conference room.

Öko, Institut für angewandte Ökologie (Oeko, the Institute for Applied Ecology), is a private institute that may be described as a German version of IVL Swedish Environmental Research Institute. Oeko emerged from opposition to nuclear power in the 1970s, but has broadened its activities and nowadays focuses on energy, mobility and waste.

Johansson’s own interest in waste was awakened while he was working on his thesis, which concerned the political aspects of recycling. He noted that there are roughly comparable levels of valuable minerals in the bedrock and in landfills. But while mining is benefiting from the new legislation, minerals in landfills are considered hazardous waste.

‘There are advantages and disadvantages of both systems. I’m here to investigate the German system and, above all, their political attitudes to the issues. In Sweden, we’re focused on pollutants. But in Europe you have to think differently, largely because there is less land available.’

He realises that the European view of waste is characterised by countries’ relatively high population density and less abundant supply of cheap resources in the bedrock.

‘In contrast, we in the North have a vast land area to spread ourselves across. But if we’re now going to have a circular society, we need to make better use of what’s on top of the Earth’s crust,’ Johansson says.

The corridors at Oeko Berlin resemble those of any office hotel, and today it is particularly difficult to find a conference room. Johansson has a desk and a computer, but we wander about and end up in the foyer.

Oeko is headquartered in Freiburg and has some 60 employees in Berlin. Johansson is already noting some cultural differences compared with Sweden.

‘They don’t take coffee breaks here,’ he observes.

An important part of a Mistra Fellowship is to forge contacts, both with researchers and with the community. Johansson has designed a qualitative interview study in which he will interview German politicians on waste policy. He also plans to confer with industry representatives.

In addition, he will meet colleagues at the Institute and other research centres. The absence of coffee breaks does not prevent us from talking with a colleague, Ralph O Harthan, at the coffee machine, who tells us in passing that the giant German Energiewende project, the country’s energy transition policy, will not be completed on time when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

What various German think tanks have warned about has now become a fuzzily worded passage in the coalition documentation compiled by the incoming Government. This makes it clear that the year 2020 is no longer applicable.

‘So that’s the situation. Halving by 2030 is the aim instead, but that’s even harder,’ says Harthan, Johansson’s research colleague at the Oeko Institute in Berlin.

Text: Thomas Heldmark